Saturday, October 1, 2011

Old Hangtown, California

From Dry Diggins to Hangtown to Placerville
Dry Diggins was the first of thirty mining camps to spring up around Coloma, where gold was discovered by James Marshall on January 24, 1848. While other camps, such as Bottle Hill, Georgia Slide, and Murderer's Bar just faded away, Hangtown, or Placerville, was a survivor, along with Diamond Springs, El Dorado, Shingle Springs and Georgetown.

Dry Diggins became known as Hangtown in the fall of 1849, due to vigilante justice meted out to criminals at the end of a rope, often at the giant old oak tree on the thoroughfare in town. With the large influx of fortune hunters from around the world came the usual portion of unsavory characters committing all manner of despicable deeds, from robbery to murder.

The miners quickly became short-tempered with the rising crime rate and the lack of readily-available law enforcement, so they took the "law" (or lack thereof) into their own hands. Criminals were punished in short order, whether it be flogging or hanging, based on snap decisions made by impromptu courts with hastily-formed juries. If you voiced your reasonable objections in favor of a more lengthy, but fair trial for the accused, you'd risk swinging, too.

Flog Five, Hang Three - The first lynching in the camp, a triple hanging, came after a gang of five tried to rob a miner of his gold dust. They were caught and each received a whipping of nearly 40 strokes. Then someone in the crowd of 2,000 said he recognized three of the five as being wanted for involvement with a murder on the Stanislaus River. At that, the three suspects, who were still weak from the flogging they took, were immediately tried, sentenced and hanged by the mob.

There was one dissenter, E.G. Buffum, who stood on a stump and protested on behalf of the accused, saying they were too weak from loss of blood to either stand or speak in their own defense. His valiant efforts were in vain, however, and he himself was threatened with lynching by the angry mob if he didn't 'shut up'. Buffum escaped with his life and later became the senior editor of the Alta newspaper in San Francisco.

The three suspects were hanged together from the huge oak tree in camp. The location of this well-used hangin' tree is marked by an effigy dangling by his neck from the second story of the Hangman's Tree Historic Spot in downtown Placerville. The stump is said to be in the cellar.

A lynching in 1850 resulted from an incident that happened at the El Dorado Hotel, when a miner accused a young Monte dealer of "waxing the cards". The card dealer was the infamous Dick Crone, who threatened to cut the miner's heart out if he accused him of cheating again. When the miner repeated the words, the gambler drew a large bowie knife, plunging it into the miner's chest twice, twisting it around the second time (obviously trying to make good on his threat to cut his heart out). Miners flocked into town from outlying diggins to locate and punish Crone. He was found hiding in Coffee's tavern, and was promptly tried (with witnesses testifying), convicted, and hanged that very evening by a mob jury of thousands.

The vigilante lynchings, with their often deserved but sometimes questionable justice, brought about a measure of peace within the camp. The criminals hadn't left the scene completely, however. They just moved their business to the outskirts of town, ambushing miners. These bushwhackers had a gang-like network, complete with in-town spies, secret handgrips, and special passwords. A vigilante committee was formed to deal with this problem.


  1. Whew! That's rough. I have heard of Old Hangtown, but didn't know the real location. Sometimes we might think the law of the west might be best, but when you read about something like this, you realize just how much of a traversty it is. Scary stuff, for sure.
    I wonder how many hangings took place in movies? Too many, probably. I remember a romance novel I read long ago that began with a man sitting on a horse with a noose around his neck. He was left that way near a cabin where a young woman lived alone. She had a time trying to decide if she should let him die...maybe he was a killer...or save him if she could, before the horse decided to bolt. The first chapter was very tense! Very good, too, as I recall.'ve once again given us a wonderful story.

  2. Thanks, Celia. 'They' say three of the hanged people are buried under Highway 50, but who knows with the kind of stories that go around. There is so much history around this area and I love it.

    Poor old George is no longer hanging outside the bar. Too many people complained that it wasn't proper and now the bar is deteriorating so it may not be there much longer either. I am so glad I got the photo before they removed him. It's sad the way people try to change history...

  3. Wow! I bet you really watched "what" you said and "who" you said it to in "Old Hangtown." Sounds like if you didn't - you'd end up with a stretched neck! Very interested post.


  4. Poor old George indeed!! This is the first I have heard of Old Hangtown, California. Thank you.

  5. Thanks Maeve. There is so much history around here. When I worked downtown, the art gallery was just down the street from the Hangman Saloon where George hung. The gallery was actually a corner saloon in 1849. It feeds my imagination for my stories. :)

  6. Hi Marybelle, Yes, this was part of the gold rush during 1849 and you can still see remnants of those wild days. Thanks for stopping by for a visit.

  7. Vigilantes are always scary, at least I think so. Maybe there are exceptions.

    Paisley, I'd love to visit that area. We lived in Cupertino for a year and tried to see the area each weekend. We didn't make it to Placerville, but did make it to Calaveras (sp?) County because of the Mark Twain story about the jumping frog. I love northern California, but there were way too many people in the Cupertino area.
    Wish we had what the house we lived in is worth now, though!

  8. My aunt lived in Cupertino, Caroline. You are right - there are a lot of people. We live over a couple of mountains from Calaveras County, known as the frog jumping contest site. One of these days, come on out and I can take you into the gold mine and show you around a real gold rush town. Parts of Placerville are decaying and buildings having to be taken down now, but we still have some plus the old Victorian houses. oh, and the ghosts, of course.

  9. Paisley,
    Interesting post on the "justice" practiced at that time in that goldrush area. Pretty rough time and place.

  10. Hi Jeanmarie. They didn't call it the 'wild west' for nothing. I am trying to find a way to put this into one of my stories.

  11. I love Placerville! I did a post on it and the hangtown stuff at Petticoats and Pistols right after we visited. Such atmosphere.

    My aunt and uncle lived here for years during my childhood and my parents never took us up there! Grrrrr.

  12. I agree with you, Tanya. There is an atmosphere in Placerville. I loved working in the art gallery down there for five years. Learned a lot about the history and even wandered into some of the 'historic' bars. Lots of the tunnels still exist, but some of the buildings are dying away. I hope you can visit it some day.


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